Stuck Inside Of Dylan With The Completist's Blues Again: Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series Volume 12
Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series. Not only a savvy fan-pleasing method but — perhaps more importantly to the management and the man formerly known as Mr. Zimmerman — a savvy business method. Surely it's filled his coffers and he hasn't had to lay down new material to earn it.
It also provides relief for the usual 3-5 year gap between his studio albums these days. While his true devotees may have nearly everything he's put out since launching the series, they didn't have it in top quality and likely shelled out for the official, Dylan-endorsed discs anyway. Still the best and most resounding of all these — and probably always will be — was the first release, one that encompassed a full three volumes. Unlike the barrel bottom scrounging that typically accompanies such a deep reaching package for a major artist (see the majority of The Beatles' Anthologies 1-3 from the mid-90s or the Stones' Metamorphosis from 1975), this one was/is nothing short of a revelation and is must hearing — even for those Dylan fans who think they've got it all.
While Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 was loaded heavier on the early work — understandable considering his prodigal output as a 20-21 year old folk maverick in the making — it still captured points from his entire career right up to the 1990's. So while it shows the fantastic unreleased works both cover and original from his developmental stage of 1961-63 on Volume 1, it also captures the progression from folk hero into poetic visionary rock n' roller that made him a true superstar on Volume 2 (1963-75).
Volume 3 sheds light on a maligned period of his career from 1975-89 — a truly fascinating disc that calls into question the commonly held notion he was a spent force creatively post-Blood On The Tracks. On top of that were extensive, fascinating liner notes with sterling artwork and photos of neat artifacts such as a copy of Dylan's passport as well as papers with hand-written notes with lyrics jotted down on them. Its 1991 release year proved to be a timely one for restoring critical favour of Dylan, considering most viewed him by then as a creatively dried up relic who, aside from the shot in the dark clarity of 1989's Oh Mercy, had nothing much left to say.
On top of that, by 1991 he was known as an artist who could often put on confusing, jumbled and downright bad concert performances — for example, his 1991 Grammy appearance for a lifetime achievement award when he tore through an unintelligible rendition of 1962's "Masters Of War". While Dylan is still seen as an inconsistent stage artist — namely due to his ravaged vocal cords and propensity for mumbling through his own lyrics — his reputation is in much higher steed now than then.
As for the Bootleg Series, after its highly acclaimed first installment came there were Volumes that focused on a variety of themes: live tours/concert dates (i.e. Vol. 5: Rolling Thunder Revue 1975), album sessions (i.e. Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait) or just a period of time in his career (i.e. Vol. 8: Telltale Signs, 1989-2006). Some of these releases have been mildly interesting but others — such as Vol. 11's Complete Basement Tapes — have been nothing short of revelatory.
All of this is a byproduct of Dylan being arguably the most heavily bootlegged artist in the age of recorded music. It truly began in earnest when those "basement tapes" recordings with The Band at their "Big Pink" cottage in upstate New York became so widely traded to the point other artists were covering the songs while the world heard very little from the man himself — this being in the wake of an August 1966 motorcycle accident that saw Dylan go from the high profile spotlight to reclusive family man. What music came after was a retreat into quieter, country-folk settings that belied the grandiose, emotional, sweeping sounds of his 1965-66 work captured on three seminal albums (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde). The accident sidelined him with several broken vertebrae in his neck but also seemed a natural conclusion to a whirlwind phase of his career where he plugged in to go electric barely over a year earlier and transitioned from galvanizing to becoming rock's leading figure.
By 1965, Dylan had come to resent his status as some sort of leading political activist voice — intrinsically tied to his mythology even today, no small part due to some of his enduring anthems evoking social justice and civil rights (i.e. "Blowing In The Wind," "Chimes Of Freedom"). That may have been a facet of his early days but Dylan wasn't a political junkie or angry voice so much as a kid just trying to sound hip to the whole scene and cultured on it like his hero Woody Guthrie had been. When Joan Baez — to this day a huge activist with her music — became an item on (and off) stage with Dylan, his reputation as a leading voice grew even more.
But Dylan was also yearning for a fresh sound to cut ties with what everyone thought they knew him as. With his songs of 1964-65, Bobby did his very best to shed that perception and boy did he succeed — almost too much because it resulted in a vitriolic reaction and accusations of Dylan as a modern day Judas. In this period he recorded some of the most vital work in the rock canon, subsequently spawning a litany of singer-songwriters to dominate the music world for the next decade until punk and new wave moved in.
And with The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-66, that pivotal peak in Dylan's sprawling, tremendous career is laid out bare. It's a journey that takes Dylan from a curiosity of the media to a near celebrity with interviewers hounding him en masse. Personally, it drove Dylan into some dark spots as the demand increased while he faced backlash from his original folk fans for his switch to rocking and "unnatural" electric enhancement. For every fan that dug what he was laying down there were two or three who were livid and came to his concerts just to heckle their fallen idol. No matter, he gained a new audience and would play to sold out crowds for the rest of his career that cared not a wit for his supposed betrayal of folk music and the causes it stood for.
Dylan dealt with the madness around him in 1965-66 by indulging in amphetamine, heroin and alcohol use, leading to the infamous nasal drawls heavily employed on Blonde on Blonde. When the dust settled he decided to seek out the simple life with his growing family after having tied the knot secretly to Sara Lowndes in 1965.
In some incarnations of this Volume 12 release, one can buy a two-disc "Best Of" version which is probably what Dylan beginners will want to seek out. Then there's a six-disc "Deluxe Version" more suited for the hardcore types like yours truly. A third version — the "Collector's Edition" — is extremely limited with just 5,000 copies being made available worldwide and only purchasable from Dylan's official website — perhaps because it's a gaudy 18 discs. The 18 disc setup literally touches everything and features every take, every moment, every bit of studio chatter from 1965-66. Everything committed to tape, supposedly. So if you ever wanted to hear Dylan burp or sneeze amidst all sorts of botched takes and false starts, then the "Collector's Edition" will be just for you. But to be fair, one will also hear any alternative lyrics or arrangements that maps out how the songs got from the gestation period onto record — or didn't make it that far, for that matter.
So, what about the content? Having not heard it yet, this is not a review but a teaser for what's to come and what has led up to this massive project. Set to drop on November 6, The Cutting Edge 1965-66 is hotly anticipated, as most of the Bootleg Series volumes have been, but is it going to rival some of the best ones in the series? Perhaps there's a bit of collector fatigue on my part but I say no. True, there are rarities to be found with "You Don't Have To Do That," "California," "Medicine Sunday," and "Lunatic Princess" but scanning the track listing there are a multitude of songs here available in some form or another.
Perhaps the Collector's Edition will unearth the most curious case studies considering its sprawling scope, but who has the time to listen to nearly 100 hours of recordings to find that out!? Surely the liner notes, art and photos will be part of the charm of buying one of the many editions. Obviously anyone with their cheaper online options can see if they can dig up the entirety of it but for those who want another piece of the Dylan legacy from arguably his most fertile two years as a musician, The Cutting Edge 1965-66 promises to be one of the most tantalizing Bootleg Series editions yet.
Evan Dowbiggin @Edowrimple @NPBRoadcaster